Lady of the Snakes
by Rachel Pastan
Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
What if everything you wanted to achieve was just slightly out of reach, and, more frustratingly, if you were trying to master several unreachable goals at the same time? Rachel Pastan writes of the eternal dilemma of the working mother: juggling work demands, ambitions, motherhood, and marriage. Elevated from the more humdrum annals of chick lit by Pastan's luminous prose, Lady of the Snakes utilizes more than a few of her literary gifts.
Jane Levitsky and her young family, husband Billy and infant Maisie, all struggle to find a foothold on the new terrain of familyhood.
...Jane's life was transformed as suddenly as a plot of land was transformed by a developer. This is what women's lives are like, she thought with a start in the dim kitchen, her bare feet cold against the linoleum. It had never occurred to her -- not really -- that women's lives were still so deeply different from men's.
Both Jane and Billy are academics, with Jane putting her dissertation on hold to take care of the baby. Jane is a Grigory Karkov scholar, Karkov being a fictional 19th-century Russian novelist that Pastan skillfully brings to life, complete with passages from his "works." But Jane's main interest and her primary dissertation path is the collection of diaries written by Karkov's wife, Masha. When Maisie is about two, Jane accepts a position at the University of Wisconsin and begins to pursue tenure, while trying to cope with the yokes of family life, work sabotage, and marital unrest around her neck.
It is in the fictional diary entries of Masha Karkova that Pastan really shines; they are every bit as compelling as anything an actual 19-century writer could have created:
I will not be surprised if one of these years it snows in July. Snow is the soul of Russia made visible. Still, I will be glad when the grass in the meadow is up to my waist and the sun draws the flowers up out of the ground like young girls with ribbons in their hair drawn into the ballroom by the strains of a waltz. Before Katya was born, I longed for her arrival the way a child longs for a lovely toy. I couldn't imagine how she would transform my life any more than a creeping caterpillar can imaging what it is like to be a butterfly -- soaring over the emerald fields, but battered and sent tumbling by every breeze.
These passages serve the novel's plotline as Jane becomes more and more obsessed with Masha's diaries and the struggles they share as wives and mothers. When Jane makes research discoveries that are revelatory and that could change the course of future Karkov studies, she begins to awaken the ire of emeritus professor Otto Sigelman, considered the world's preeminent Karkov scholar.
Ironically, Pastan's weakness, when not writing as Masha or Karkov, is her tendency to color her 21st-century characters a little too dramatically. The antagonist, Sigelman, could almost be twirling a mustache, as he is portrayed as utterly villainous and ominous, all hot breath and yellow teeth. The day-care provider is, of course, secretly cruel and bigoted. The grad student babysitting Maisie is fetching and slightly dangerous -- the reader doesn't have to reach far to guess how that will impact Jane and Billy's marital life. Jane's Karkov research culminates in her implausibly finding a cache of stolen letters under the most unlikely of circumstances and Pastan's resolution of the novel's central conflicts are predictable and somewhat unbelievable.
But it is Pastan's understanding of the real-life tortures that juxtapose the true beauty of being a mother against a woman's inner ambitions, as well as her ability to write in several voices, that make this novel noteworthy. Perfect for book club discussion, Lady of the Snakes is a flawed, but wholly enjoyable novel.